Veteran catfish guide Mike Mitchell (on right) rigs up with stout tackle and big baits for monsters,
such as this 88-pound blue cat caught on the Tennessee River. (courtesy of Mike Mitchell)
Tips for Targeting and Catching Record Catfish
By Alan Clemons
Top guides provide insights on putting giants in the boat.
If you’re interested in catching a record catfish, get ready to put in the work. Several factors come into play when targeting and catching big catfish, from tackle and bait to location, time of year and tangling with a record catfish.
Let’s take the latter to pick apart before getting to the pros’ tips on catching big cats. If you’ve never caught catfish, a 5- or 6-pounder might blow your mind. If you’re a weekend warrior or veteran, a 50-pounder might be your goal. A 75- or 100-pounder might be your ultimate goal if you love the aroma of stinkbait and shad guts in the morning.
All these can change with the species, too. A 30-pound channel catfish might be a dream for some anglers. Or a 50-pound flathead. Tournament anglers often seek giant fish or specific slot fish. Weekend catmasters looking for biters to eventually release in Lake Crisco and eat aren’t as discerning. Goals and dreams are different for everyone.
Take those desires up a notch for a record-book catfish. Typically, we think of “record” for the Big 3: Blues, Flatheads and Channels. The record blue cat usually grabs attention in news and social media. At more than 140 pounds, that’s not a surprise. Records vary, though, and are easy to find.
The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) lists freshwater and saltwater species around the world, including for age and different line classes. If you’re a fan of light line tactics, a line-class record might be in your wheelhouse.
The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame also has records for freshwater species. It and the IGFA have specific application requirements, too. Study those before going on a record quest so you don’t miss anything important.
Finally, check with your state wildlife agency for their records. Most are just for the record, with no Top 10 list or other classification. But a record is cool, whether it’s for a big blue or feisty bullhead. Checking the lists for age and line-class records also could be something to do with kids or grandkids.
Choose the Right Bait
Some anglers don’t always cotton to the “big bait, big fish” mantra. They might use a 4- or 5-inch shad when seeking big fish but will drop it in a specific location. A deep hole, for example, on the river bottom or near a log jam with current. A catfish usually won’t pass up a 5-inch shad flittering about. But if a wad of guts and shad fillets are presented, they’ll probably eat it more readily. Bigger fillets, guts and heads give off more scent for a catfish to notice. Don’t ignore how a smaller bait might get the job done, though.
Veteran Alabama guide Mike Mitchell isn’t in the small-bait camp. He goes for big baits and big presentations when targeting catfish of 40 pounds or more. Mitchell uses the freshest and biggest gizzard shad he can get. The large fillets, gut sack and head all get used.
“I’ve probably caught more big catfish on the head or fillets than anything when I’m fishing dead or slack water,” he said. “In the current, though, I don’t like the head because there’s so much drag on it and the mouth will come open. The bigger chunks of the body seem to work best for me when there’s some current.”
Two of best tips I’ve seen before involve using the head. One is to hook the head through the bottom jaw and up between the eyes, which is thicker. The head stays on the hook, which keeps the mouth from opening. The other is to smash the head, either with the sole of your shoe or something else — a rubber mallet, perhaps — to get all the juices and blood flowing. Don’t crush it like a pancake but just enough to get all that good blood and stuff flowing to get a cat’s attention.
The late Jim Duckworth of Nashville guided for catfish, crappie and bass for decades. He went after big ones for years but later opted for homemade noodle rigs that caught good-sized “eating fish,” as he called them. Those also weren’t brutes that wore him out. But he did enjoy tangling with big ones at one time.
“I always preferred the deeper holes for blue cats, and those were better with some kind of cover – boulders, rocks, a log jam,” he told me a few years ago while we fished on Kentucky Lake. “You’ll get snagged sometimes in those situations, but if you’re not close to home, you won’t catch them.
“For flatheads, I always wanted fresh bait and some cover. They move around a little bit and will be shallow at times, but fresh bait always made a difference for me with them. Always use fresh bait, whether it’s big cut shad or bluegills for big fish or nightcrawlers for the noodle rigs.”
Be sure to check state wildlife regulations about using live baitfish. Some species might be prohibited or others may be regulated on location.
Mitchell guides on the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, and fishes other rivers and lakes in tournaments. He’s no stranger to big cats and prepares accordingly. His rods are rigged with 80-pound-test line for his leader, thick hooks and reels that have solid drag systems to fight brutish fish.
“I have my gear set up where I think I could get a world record into the boat,” he said. “That’s what I’m aiming for when I fish. My reel drag is set tight but not so tight where if you put pressure on it you’re going to break off.
“I tell people to put more heat on them (after setting the hook) to get them off the bottom. With just about any fish, once you get the head turned and get them off the bottom and coming your way, you can slow down a little and fight them. With the initial bite, you want to give him all you can. Stick the butt of the rod by your hip, put your left hand up on the foregrip and give it leverage until you get it off the bottom. Then you can slow down to take your time and fight it. Nine times out of 10, he’s not going to break you off because you put too much pressure on him. It’s going to break because it got into something or nicked the line, and that’s why you have to get the fish turned.”
Anchoring and dropping baits into specific locations is time-tested and proven. But don’t overlook other methods, such as trolling. They’re effective and, on tough days, might be the ticket. West Virginia guide Tabitha Linville, who was part of our July “Women in Catfishing” issue, caught one of her biggest flatheads while trolling.
“I caught a 60-pound flathead on a planer board, which is our biggest on the board,” she said. “It’s a whole different technique. We usually anchor to target fish, but pulling the board, you’re pulling up the river against the current. It’s a lot different, and you cover a lot of water doing it. We usually only pull planer boards if there’s not much current or no current at all. But if there’s good current running, we’ll anchor and fish. It’s easier to find them and pinpoint them.”
In a nutshell? Use fresh bait, be smart about locations, choose big baits most of the time, have your gear rigged for monsters and be patient. Try new tactics, too, such as trolling, if you want to learn something new. Search the record books to get some ideas. Build on your knowledge and before long you may catch a record catfish.
(Alan Clemons is an award-winning professional writer who has hunted and fished in more than 40 states. He has written about news, sports, outdoors and more since 1984. Some of his first memories of fishing are of catching catfish. Clemons is married and lives in Alabama.)